By any other name, it’s still cheatgrass | NevadaAppeal.com

By any other name, it’s still cheatgrass

Sam Bauman
Appeal Staff Writer

Maybe this will sound nicer if we call it by one of its other names, downy brome, for instance. No matter, cheatgrass is cheatgrass. And it surrounds us – and that’s not good. It doesn’t look ugly, just sort of a kind of tall grass with drooping heads that turn pink or purple about now.

You’ll find it all over Nevada, thickest where wildfires have foraged. It’s not native; it sneaked over from Eurasia around 1907, and now is ubiquitous.

So what’s wrong with cheatgrass?

It burns easily and hot. It displaces native plants such as sagebrush. It is of little use as forage. Sheep can eat it, but it fast loses any food value.

In the first two decades of the last century, there were no major wildfires in Nevada. But from the 1930s on, wildfires of 100,000 or more acres became common. Cheatgrass is blamed for this increase; its fine texture makes it a practical fuse for fires.

Ed Smith, natural resource specialist at the University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension says, “Dry cheatgrass is the most easily ignited vegetation surrounding Carson City.”

It’s not gasoline, but it sure lights in a hurry.

“Carson homeowners living in cheatgrass areas need to remove it for at least 30 feet from their homes and take special care when using these areas,” Smith says.

Now, 30 feet is maybe three car lengths. Measure it, and add a couple of feet for wiggle room.

“Cheatgrass fires can be easily started by sparks from mowers, hot catalytic converters on cars and cigarettes. Once started, cheatgrass fires can travel faster than people can run.”

When was the last time you did the 100-yard dash? Sure, you’re still that fast?

“The combination of a wet spring and the presence of burned areas from Waterfall fire have created the conditions for an exceptional cheatgrass year. This year, cheatgrass is growing more dense and taller than usual.”

Smith watches cheatgrass grow and hopes to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

“Unless burned areas had a good population of native grasses before the fire or were successfully reseeded with perennial grasses after the fire, they risk being dominated by cheatgrass in the future.”

So not only do you want to get rid of cheatgrass, you want to try and keep it from coming back. And there is hope.

“You might say that cheatgrass was the first Mideast terrorist to hit U.S. soil,” joked Jay Davison.

The University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension plant and soils specialist told of a Carson City test site just two weeks before the devastating Waterfall fire roared through the hillsides above the adjacent Wellington Crescent subdivision.

Davison and Ed Smith demonstrated the results of a research trial testing the herbicide Plateau to see if it was effective in controlling cheatgrass which had invaded a 100-foot-wide fuel break constructed in 2002, while allowing beneficial native perennials to survive and reclaim the area. In November 2003, the area was divided into 16 40-by-14-foot plots, on which various treatments of the herbicide were tested.

The trial revealed that the control areas in the previously cleared fire break contained 150 pounds of cheatgrass per acre, while the sprayed plots showed only 4 pounds. Furthermore, the herbicide did not harm native plants, such as bunch grasses, wildflowers and sagebrush. This is a vital advantage in that the herbicide would allow immediate reseeding of an area with beneficial vegetation.

“This study suggests that Plateau can be successful in the fight against cheatgrass, making firebreaks and adjacent homes safer without harming native species,” said Davison.

He led another group to the demonstration site several weeks after the Waterfall fire had destroyed 15 homes. The test site formed a patchwork mosaic against the stark, charred hills, while the Wellington homes stood miraculously intact. The fire had “laid down” at the edge of the test plots, said Davison, revealing how powerful this tool could be in wildfire-prone areas.

Carson City officials were so impressed with Cooperative Extension’s research in the fire-break area and its tradition of defensible-space education to homeowners and its ability to produce results, they granted $222,000 to the university for a two-year Waterfall fire Education Project.

• Contact Sam Bauman at sbauman@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1236.

What is cheatgrass?

• Common names include cheatgrass, downy brome, June grass

• Scientific name: Bromus tectorum L.

• Growth characteristics: A weedy winter-annual grass, 2 inches to 2 feet tall. Has a branched base and is typically rusty-red to purple at maturity. Seeds germinate in the late fall or early spring. Has rapid spring growth, with seeds maturing within two months of beginning growth. Reproduces from seeds.

• Cheatgrass grows on all exposures and all types of topography from desert valley bottoms to 2,500 to 13,000 feet in elevation. It invades heavily grazed rangeland, roadsides, waste places, burned areas and disturbed sites quickly.

• It is adapted to all kind of soils except the extremely wet or extremely saline alkali and thrives where there is only weak competition from perennial native or introduced plants.

• Seedheads may injure eyes and mouth of grazing animals and contaminate fleece. It furnishes some food for deer, pronghorn, Canada geese, doves, upland birds and rodents. Chukars are uniquely adapted to cheatgrass-infested range, where it provides food and cover.